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Madison Heights

May 16, 2013

Tai chi program still strong after beloved teacher’s passing

Art of tai chi strengthens the body and mind by relieving stress

By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer

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During a tai chi chuan class at Cranbrook’s Keppel Gymnasium last year, Sifu Stephen Britt leads his students through the forms. Britt passed away March 29, but his legacy lives on in classes through the Michigan Tai Chi Chuan Institute, which includes classes for people of all ages and skill levels at Madison Heights City Hall.

MADISON HEIGHTS — The city of Madison Heights continues to offer tai chi classes to people of all ages, and the program is as strong as ever despite the unexpected passing of the martial arts master who brought it to the city in the first place.

Tai chi sharpens the mind, improving one’s ability to relax and focus under pressure — a useful skill for test-taking or conflict resolution. It’s a powerful form of self-defense, should the need arise, and it uses natural movements of the body to reverse the effects of everyday stress. Its healing power is so great that the medical community incorporates tai chi into rehabilitation programs.

One of tai chi’s greatest local practitioners was Stephen Britt, who passed away not long ago. He was born with a rare immune system disorder called Weber-Christian Disease, which causes the body to identify its own tissue as alien matter and to destroy it, wrecking muscle, fat and nerve tissue and leaving the body in an emaciated state.

It could’ve crippled him for life. But then, as a teen growing up in 1970s Toronto, his friends in the Chinese community told him that the family that created the Wu style of tai chi was expanding from Hong Kong to Toronto, and he ought to study with them.

Within years, many of his health issues had reversed. He dedicated himself to tai chi and became the first westerner accepted as a student of the Wu family in North America, training with the third-, fourth- and fifth-generations of the family for 30 consecutive years, both in Toronto and abroad in Southeast Asia. 

He took on the title “sifu” — Chinese for “teacher” — and for many years, he was the senior disciple of the fifth generation of the Wu family. He was also the technical director of the recently renamed Michigan Tai Chi Chuan Institute, and through this he helped bring tai chi classes to the city of Madison Heights.

But on March 29 — Good Friday — he passed away at the age of 55. The fact that he had lived for so long, and so well, was a testament to the power of tai chi. 

“He was a dear friend, and he was a wonderful teacher,” said Madison Heights City Manager Ben Myers, who took tai chi under Britt. “I recall my first class being captivated by his explanations of the body and the mechanics of tai chi. He not only explained what to do and how to do it, but just as importantly, why to do it, what’s the benefit, and the reason for the technique or the movement.”

Now Britt’s legacy lives on in the Michigan Tai Chi Chuan Institute, which passes along his wisdom in classes such as those offered locally. The Madison Heights program is still going strong under the guidance of the new chief instructor, Sifu Michael Ashmore.

Ashmore struggled with his own debilitating condition growing up. When he was 10, he was diagnosed with an orthopedic condition called Legg–Calvé–Perthes syndrome. The effects of it plagued him until he was 13 or 14, by which time the tai chi he was learning under Britt had more or less restored him to full strength. 

He followed in Britt’s footsteps and became a disciple of the Wu family for 13 years. In 2005, Ashmore was promoted to sifu and took on disciples of his own, still working closely with Britt every day as the second most senior instructor at the Michigan Tai Chi Chuan Institute.

“The theory of tai chi gives you a different way of looking at how your body works than most other disciplines can,” Ashmore said. “You can come at any health challenges you have from a different direction once you learn tai chi. Sometimes that’s the key to reverse anything that may be plaguing you. Stress shortens and tightens everything, and your body is more forgiving when you’re relaxed and comfortable.”

How tai chi works
In learning tai chi, Ashmore’s students study three areas: health, meditation and martial arts. All three are interconnected.

The health aspect begins with curing the physical symptoms of stress damage, which can include tension, poor circulation, shallow breathing, a knotted stomach, digestive issues and more. To boost and open one’s circulation, students move through a series of 108 postures, referred to as the “form” or “chuan.”

These are practiced slowly to allow relaxation in the musculature and effective stretching — the breathing is performed abdominally, focusing on deep and full breathing to establish full inhalation and exhalation.

The blood flow improves and the muscles relax. The rotations and circular movements of the form then allow the joints of the body to open in order to restore the natural range of motion to all of the body’s joints.

As such, there’s no overt stretching or hyperextension of the joints. Tai chi treats every part of the body evenly; it’s an exercise that’s called “bilaterally symmetrical,” which means it is equal on the left and right sides for perfect formation.

The 108 postures take several months to learn and roughly 25 minutes to complete from start to finish. Doing the full set improves your ability to focus, since you have to concentrate in order to remember which form comes next and how to coordinate the movements. This is the meditative aspect.

Once the mind and body are ready, one is fully capable of learning the martial arts. Tai chi is a “soft” form of self-defense, as opposed to “hard” — it teaches people to neutralize the impact of a hard hit and flow with the blow, yielding to incoming force using softness to neutralize it, rather than confronting force with force.

It’s based on the study of infants, where it was noticed  that infants can generate a lot of power and yet their muscles remain soft and relaxed. Returning to this state requires relaxation under stress, which requires a strong background in concentration — hence improving one’s focus through the forms. It provides the sensitivity of mind to overcome an aggressive opponent, but it also provides the mental acuity to perform well in all other aspects of life, which makes it a valuable skill for people of all ages, including the young. 

“For health purposes, evening out the effects of stress can really help regulate high blood pressure,” Ashmore said.

The syllabus for tai chi includes learning the hand form, two-person training (referred to as “pushing-hands”), individual meditation posture training (referred to as “Chi-Kung”), weapon forms including sword and broadsword, and eventually higher level training to prepare a student even for the level of international competition.

Ashmore is committed to pass along everything he learned from Britt.

“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of tai chi, and other subjects, too — history, politics, and so on — but he had strong conviction, with no hesitation, and an answer for every question. That’s the impression he made on me when I started learning tai chi,” Ashmore said. “He always used to say, ‘The art form is greater than any one teacher, so if I go, the art form keeps going.’”

Myers said the continuation of the classes in Madison Heights is proof of this.

“I think that’s the best legacy a teacher can have,” Myers said.

All three tai chi classes meet in the lower level of Madison Heights City Hall, 300 W. 13 Mile. People sign up and attend whenever their schedule allows. The Young Adults class, for ages 14-30, meets 6-7:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Adult Beginners class, for ages 31-55, meets 10:30-11:30 a.m. and 7:40-9 p.m. Mondays, 7:40-9 p.m. Wednesdays, 10:30-11:30 a.m. Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

The intermediate class, suitable for all ages after completing one of the other classes, meets from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 7:40-9 p.m. on Mondays, 7:30-9 p.m. Tuesdays, 7:40-9:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 7:30-9 p.m. Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

Adults pay a flat rate of $60 per month; students pay $30 per month. Residents get a discount of $5 per month. Family discounts are available. To find out more, call Sifu Michael Ashmore at (248) 854-3953.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.